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When I dance to jazz music, I feel free – Susie

Welcome to my world!

This is the first part in a series of four that will be going over February, where I invite you to meet the main characters from Give in to the Feeling. (Update 01/06/2019 – The title is now Ghosts Through the Cracks)

It’s a weird experience for me. I very seldom write in the first person. But it was fun. You never know what characters will reveal you when you let them speak.

Warning: You are about to discover things that are not in the story!

Enjoy.


Ghosts Through the Cracks by Sarah Zama is a historical fantasy novella set in 1920s Chicago. Meet the main character, Susie.

A black and white photo of a young Chinese girl in a 1920s nightgown. She wears a pearl headband on her shingle and a pale shawl on her shoulders.

It’s the weirdest of things, thinking about that life now. It feels like a dream, a sweet dream, sometimes. But so far away, I’m not even sure it was ever my life. I know it will never be again.

I was born in the Dragon Backbone Mountains in the south of China, in what I used to think of as a village, and I now would call a group of huts among the rice paddy fields. It was a beautiful place. I knew it even then. I remember the sun on the liquid terraces, the mists before the sun rose. The sweet summers. I do have many nice memories of my birthplace.
I remember running barefoot with gangs of kids, playing jokes on our elders, going hunting for rabbits and other small games. I was quite a good hunter, considering I was a little girl.

My father would always say I was a double disgrace for him. First, because I was a woman, the first of five sisters. And second, because I should have been a boy – it was clear by my attitude. He would always say that before proceeding to beat some sense in that stupid head of mine.
I wonder now whether my father was a violent man. I don’t think he was. He never treated my sisters the way he treated me, but maybe my treatment was education enough for them never to do what I did: speak back, speak my mind, act like a tomboy. If this is the case, I’m happy I spared my sisters that fate. By my teen years, I had learned to curb my tongue and think twice before speaking up, even when the words strangled me in my throat.
I hardly remember what I felt when my father told me he had found a husband for me, and I was to cross the ocean to reach him. I had always expected to leave my house, of course. And probably, back then, I didn’t really know what it would mean ‘crossing the ocean’. Maybe my father saw it as his only option for a difficult daughter like me: selling me off to someone who couldn’t possibly check on me before marrying me. I know – because I discovered later – the man paid quite a handsome amount of money to get me, which was huge money in my little village. I’m sure my parents lived well enough after that, and my sisters found a good house to be married into. I consider that my last service to my family because I know I will never see any of them again.

When I dance to jazz music, I feel free – Susie (Characters Speak Series) "I stood with my papers in hand, staring at those incomprehensible words, thinking that looked exactly like my life" #historicalfiction Share on X
A sepia photo of a young Chinese girl in a 1920s nightgown reclining on a damask divan

I don’t remember the journey across the ocean. I don’t want to remember. But sometimes, it comes back in my worst nightmares. The dark, the choking heat, putrid food. The smell of so many bodies pressed together. The short moments of fresh air each of us were allowed.
I’m glad I don’t remember.
But I do remember when I finally landed in San Francisco alone. It was a nightmare of its own. It was hell. Nothing was familiar. Not the language. Not the smell of the city and the people. Not the colour of the sun. Not the sounds that assailed me and confused me. I remember the inspection and the papers handed to me, which I wasn’t even sure what were for. I stood in the street with my papers in hand, staring at those incomprehensible words and thinking that was exactly what my life looked like from that standing point.
How did I find the place where my husband was waiting for me? Maybe an old couple of immigrants helped me, someone who had come before me and knew the city. Yes, it was an elderly couple who took pity on me and helped me find the house.
When I got there, finally… my soon-to-be husband was dead.

Was I shocked? I can’t say so. I was already overwhelmed with everything. This news was just one more brick in the wall I was banging my head against. I didn’t care. I was lost anyway. There wasn’t a place for me in this new land. I knew it from the moment I set foot on it.
But my husband had an associate. They did business together. Import/export from home, as I understood it. Ma Shu took an interest in me. He had indeed carved his niche in San Francisco, but now he wanted to travel somewhere else, to a place he could call his own. I liked that. I liked his drive.
He said he had bought a place in Chicago and asked me whether I wanted to go with him. I didn’t know what

Black and white photo of a young Chinese woman. Her profile stands out against a dark background.

Chicago meant, but what did I care? It could be any place. I didn’t care to stay in San Francisco.
I went with him. I went with him in all possible ways.
Chicago did shock me. It is cold, colder than home in any season. And in winter, it’s dark and freezing. The lake sends wind and snow our way. Always. Always.
Contrary to San Francisco, there aren’t many Chinese in Chicago. Ma Shu set up his place, a speakeasy, he called it. A place where people can drink (which is forbidden by law, crazy as it sounds) and dance to jazz. All night long, if they wish.

I love jazz. Why? I don’t know. It doesn’t sound like anything familiar to me, yet when I listen to it and especially when I dance to it, it’s like a part of me is set free. Free, like I’ve never been. So free sometimes I’m scared by that feeling, but never so much not to go back to it every time.
Ma Shu has never opposed my dancing. I’ve even joined the show. I dance with other dancers. I dance with customers. Ma Shu let me do anything American women do. I can drink if I want. I can smoke. I can wear shockingly short dresses. He’s never tried to stop me from doing anything. He’s taught me to speak English. He’s taught me to deal with Americans. He’s given me a gorgeous house, beautiful dresses, anything I want.

I owe him so much. I owe him everything.

And now… now I don’t know what to do.

Pinterest Pin. Title: Give in to the Feeling by Sarah Zama. The blurred image in green-blue tones of a young Chinese woman with a shingle and an elegant 1920s dress.
Black and white photo of the back of a young woman wearing an elegant nightgown that leaves her back naked and draped with coils of pearls.
Pinterest Pin. Title: Susie - Ghosts Through the Cracks. The photo in green-blue tones of a young Chinese woman with a shingle and an elegant 1920s dress.
Pinterest pin. The text reads, "Susie". The picture shows a black-and-white closeup of a young Asian woman, her hands with fingers intertwined, partially covering her face.

Who’s modelling as Susie

Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong (1905-1961) was the first Chinese American movie star. She grew up in L.A., daughter of a laundryman. She first starred, at age 17, in Toll of the Sea, a silent version of Madame Butterfly. Her best-remembered film is Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich.

She made dozens of films in Hollywood, London and Berlin. She was glamorous; photographers flocked to take her portrait. She was worldly and articulate, with friends like Carl van Vechten, Evelyn Waugh and Paul Robeson. Yet she spent most of her career typecast either as a painted doll or a scheming Dragon Lady.

Anna May Wong could be perceived as a Chinese Stepin Fetchit, someone whose roles reinforced racist stereotypes. But a younger generation of Asian Americans sees her as a pioneering artist who succeeded in a hostile environment that hasn’t altogether changed.

Youtube – ANNA MAY WONG: IN HER OWN WORDS | Women Make Movies | Trailer
Lolita’s Classics – Anna May Wong


Image of a book titled "Ghosts through the Cracks" by Sarah Zama on a tablet computer.

8 Comments

  • TP Hogan
    Posted February 6, 2016 at 22:38

    You say you don’t normally write in first person – wow. I was so drawn in, it was nearly a shock to remember this is a character. Well done. Can’t wait for March.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted February 8, 2016 at 22:12

      Oh, thanks 🙂
      Well, I don’t think I’d be able to write an entire story in the first person. It would feel awkward, I think. But short pieces like this are fun to write.

  • Robin Rivera
    Posted February 8, 2016 at 19:50

    I love these photos. Anna is haunting in her beauty, but there is also a sadness to her face. You know there’s a lot of pain in her past. She is a perfect person to inspire a character and you did a great job with Susie. She feels so real!

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted February 8, 2016 at 22:14

      When I first saw her, I immediately thought she was my Susie 🙂
      You are right, there is sadness about her even when she smiles. She was a remarcable woman.

  • Sara L.
    Posted February 8, 2016 at 20:42

    Ohhhhh I loved this, Sarah! Especially after reading Give In To The Feeling over the weekend. I felt like I connected Susie well enough for the story, and it gives enough hints of the sadness, pain, and culture shock she’s endured. But now that I know more of it, she’s even more dear to me. 🙂

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted February 8, 2016 at 22:17

      Aww, thanks so much, Sara. Hearing you guys saying you connect with the characters is very important to me.
      I was happy to give some more insight into Susie as a woman. All writers know that we know so much more about our characters than it ends up in the actual story. I find it so cool that blogging allow us to share more 🙂

  • Ali Isaac
    Posted February 13, 2016 at 23:42

    What an interesting post! Anna May was certainly beautiful!

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted February 14, 2016 at 10:44

      She truly was. And very strong willed too.

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